Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Journey To Judge

I'm wandering around downtown Bel Air, Maryland - a sleepy little town northeast of Baltimore that's hosting the Maryland BBQ Bash, an annual event celebrating smoke, hogs and the proliferation of wheat through beer. Fifty-one teams have gathered to compete for the title and the right to head to the nationals sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS).

It's a beautiful sunny day here and life is good because of it. The crowds have gathered around the few bbq vendors selling ribs, pork and brisket, and the lines are insanely long. So long that I doubt I'll actually eat any barbecue while I'm here. According to one of the signs, the 2007 National Champion is here selling their wares. It would be a "must eat" if the lines weren't so long and moving so slowly.

I've come to the BBQ Bash to sample some barbecue, get a flavor for the community and to grab some pictures of the bbq rigs the "big boys" are using. There's been rustling in the old Ono Grill camp about firing up our smokers once again and hitting the road for Memphis In May, so before that happens, I figured I'd come down and check things out.

Of course, I'm here to snap photos, but my suddenly-not-so-trusty Canon G9's battery decides to die after two pictures. I'm flabbergasted. And pissed. No problem, I think - I've got the handy-dandy iPhone. What's this? I left it in the car???? Fucking hell. That's it. I'm done. No pictures of rigs. Now I have to rely on memory. This does not bode well for Team Ono Grill in May...

Like fanatics in any passionate pursuit, these barbecue guys are true geeks. As I wander amongst the competitors tents, I notice that these guys (and gals) are just as odd, quirky, geeky and focused as the weird barista world I compete in. But while the barista set prefers shaggy hair, tight jeans and a penchant for not showering, the bbq pit guys favor shorts, t-shirts, overnight partying and the unremovable smell of smoke on their bodies. As disconcerting as it may be for some, I somehow feel right at home amongst these guys paying insane amounts of attention to the depth of the smoke ring in their beef brisket.

The competition works like this: on the first day, Friday, the teams arrive and set up their pit sites. The judges inspect their meats to make sure they're in compliance with the rules and the cooking starts. Teams will slow cook their meats all night long while partying all night long. By Saturday morning, the meats are cooked and the teams are, well, baked. It's common knowledge that some teams party so hard on Friday night that they never make it to the judging on Saturday.

Judgment comes Saturday morning as the teams can compete in three categories: chicken, pork and brisket. Starting at 11:30am, the judging goes in waves. Teams have from 11:25 to 11:35am to submit their chicken. Then, at from 12:25 to 12:35pm, they have to submit their pork entry (pulled or ribs or anyway they choose), and finally, from 1:25 to 1:35pm they must submit their brisket entry. Miss those time windows and you're disqualified from that category.

Without knowing any of this, I had the serendipitous pleasure of happening upon the judges tent at 1:20pm, struck up a conversation with one of the supervising judges and got to see the brisket pageant play out. Within ten minutes, representatives from each of the fifty-one teams came forward, styrofoam box in hand, to submit their entry.

Watching them arrive was sheer delight. No matter the size. No matter the build. No matter the experience level. Each representative (or two or three) came holding their box with both hands. I wondered if this was detail was stated in the rules or were they just so paranoid about something happening to their entry that they made sure they were holding onto it for dear life itself. One team setup next to the judges table came around the long way instead of cutting through their backyard because the long way was the path of least resistance. God love these people for their commitment.

Walking along the aisles it was interesting to see the differences between the seasoned and the newbie. Those with lesser experience and commitment had very simple setups while veterans towed large arrays of grills and smokers on their custom-built trailers. Some of these teams had spent upwards of $80,000 on their rigs. Were they serious competitors or just passionate people committed to their lifestyle? I wasn't sure, but they too held their styro boxes with both hands.

Since it was already past one thirty and I hadn't eaten all day, I was starting to feel pretty hungry. I just wasn't going to wait an hour in one of those barbecue lines. Maybe something from the Italian sausage vendor might do, but how lame would it be to go to a bbq event and not eat barbecue? Quite lame indeed.

That's when my luck took a turn for the better. Jerry, the judge supervisor with whom I had been chatting with, invited me to go to the table at the side of the tent and try the competitors' brisket entries.

During the judging, each team submits a numbered styrofoam box. Upon receiving it, the officials replace the original number with a new one to preserve anonymity. These newly numbered boxes are sent in sets of six to the judges table. Six judges sit per table and judge six entries each. The judges base their scores on taste, texture and a slew of other criteria. After the judges have taken their samples, the remainder of the box and its' contents are sent to the side table.

The side table is where you'll find the action. The boxes are laid out randomly and any of the judges (including myself) can taste any or all of the entries. I decided that it was in the interest of my palate and professional development as a food professional that I should sample all of the entries that I could and proceeded to tear off pieces of brisket all the way down the line.

It was a fascinating adventure and wildly educational. So many entries and so many interpretations of what is, essentially, the same dish: beef brisket. As I listened to the other judges hovering around, discussing their findings, I learned a few more things: that brisket always needs to be cut across the grain. Fat needs to be trimmed. Teams that do not follow these essentials will find their entry mocked at the side table. Some of the judges went so far as to fish out the entry with the excess fat to show other judges. Harsh.

In tasting the brisket entries, I found many not to my liking. Most were just too sweet. Some had too much sauce. Others were a bit dry. Texture played an important role. Dryness was a killer. And the right smoke ring made for pleasing visual appeal. Some were bad. Most were so-so. But in tasting them all, one emerged from the pack.

The brisket was beautiful in shape. Just the right curves and a dark ochre crust with a red smoke ring that penetrated about 1/4" into the succulent grey meat. Cut across the grain, the sample was tender and juicy with just the slightest hint of a snap that was faint and ever-fleeting. Sauce was minimal but flavor was pronounced. Smoke, beef, hints of spice and red pepper. It was the standout of all the entries and I certainly hope it won.

In many ways, it was like judging a barista competition or any other competition. Lots of good entries. A few that were outright bad. And one that smoothly emerged above and beyond the rest of the field. I found the experience tasting these barbecues to be revelatory. Not to mention my pleasure in eating a free lunch.

Later, as we were standing under the tent chatting about the entries - actually, I was mostly just keeping my mouth shut and listening, with the occasional question, Jerry asked me if I might be interested in judging. That they would soon be hosting a judges training course in Salisbury and that I should come down and certify - if for nothing else than to just understand what it takes to compete in a KCBS-sanctioned event. I told him that I would love to attend.

So, who knows? You might be seeing me judging your meat somewhere along the 2009 KCBS BBQ Tour...

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